To get to Birrieria La Barca Jalisco, you pull off of Valley Boulevard and take a hike past the backs of dusty bridal boutiques and discount-clothing stores, toward what looks like the intersection of nothing and nothing, through a parking lot that seems so lonely you can imagine tumbleweeds rolling through it but paradoxically is jammed with cars. At the point where you feel totally lost, where your mother-in-law commands you to get out your phone and look up the address again, there it is — a red sign, a long hallway and a line of hungry people several dozen strong, spilling out in the direction of the parking lot, trying to get the hostess’ attention over the crashes and clatter of the kitchen.
The regulars, knowing the drill, crane their heads to study the chalkboard listing the afternoon’s specials, hoping beyond hope that today is the day for carne en su jugo, a concoction of broth, beans and grilled beef that may be on every menu in Guadalajara but is rarely seen in California. The fragrance of charred meat, garlic and hot tortillas on the griddle is maddening. The huge, low-ceilinged dining room is big and loud enough to make invisible a big wedding party at tables close enough to bean with a tortilla chip.
I first heard about La Barca a half-dozen years ago, when the El Monte novelist Michael Jaime-Becerra told my friend Michelle that it was his favorite restaurant in his hometown, a mainstay of the Valley Mall he described so well in Every Night Is Ladies’ Night. I went often to his other favorite place, the Paleteria Michoacan a half-mile east, whose prune-flavored ice pops recalled Southwest France as vividly as they did Mexico, but the dismal storefront looked deserted every time I drove by: a grimy exterior, droopy hand-scrawled posters in the windows and a door that looked as if it had never been opened. Plus, it specialized in birria, a Jalisco-style concoction of goat in broth, which may be among my favorite Mexican dishes but is available in at least 80 or 90 other restaurants in town.
In retrospect, I should have realized that my favorite birrieria, El Parian in the Pico-Union district, also looks deserted from the outside, a graffiti-spattered exterior centered on a military-grade security door. And although it may be technically possible to access La Barca from the street, I should have known to go around the back. It hurts me to think about the quarts of birria, the gallons of menudo, the thousands of fluffy hand-patted tortillas I missed.
If you look down the long tables at La Barca, you’ll see that almost everybody is getting either molcajetes or the birria, seething mortars full of shrimp, or the birrieria’s titular bowl of goat. Actually, La Barca’s birria, a thick, brick-red broth concealing a payload of mild goat meat, is good but not quite as revelatory as some of the other birrias in town — its strong smack of cloves perhaps one-dimensional compared to the herbal complexity found in the very best examples; its wet, soft meatiness not quite as compelling as the crisp, charred edges sometimes found in the places that roast their goats in dry heat before moistening the meat with consommé. A shot of La Barca’s birria-specific hot sauce, a thin, vinegary brew, balances the flavors and adds a mean chile punch, but it is still rather timid: goat with training wheels.
But the queso fundido is beyond great, a mass of cheese heated to the maximum stretching point and topped with a ladleful of crumbled sausage. My knowledge of culinary technique fails me here — I have no idea why this melted cheese tastes better than other melted cheese, but it just does. The beans are served whole, suspended in their thick cooking juices, and the handmade tortillas separate into layers when you pull at them. And the molcajetes are magnificent — slabs of chicken, grilled beef and charred cactus paddles arranged like petals around the perimeter of a superheated mortar, lozenges of Oaxacan cheese drooping down the edge like clocks in an early Dali painting, a spicy sludge of stewed chiles and tomatoes and onions concealing a pair of chorizos that lurk beneath the surface like cumin-laced crocodiles. The molcajetes featuring shrimp instead of meat are even better. And after lunch those prune paletas are only a five-minute drive away.
Birrieria La Barca Jalisco, 10817 Valley Mall, El Monte, (626) 452-2121. Open daily, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $16-$28. Recommended dishes: queso fundido, birria, molcajete with shrimp, carne en su jugo. Also at 8407 Washington Blvd., Pico Rivera, (562) 942-7060; and 3501 Firestone Blvd.,South Gate, (323) 564-5141.